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Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Thin Blue Line: Divergent paths

By Victoria Matiash
ESPN.com

Twelve days into this lockout-shortened campaign, Shea Weber has little (read: nothing) to show for himself, production-wise. Despite dominating in on-ice minutes and shots categories for the Nashville Predators, Weber remains without a single point (and a minus-1 rating) after six games. Not exactly the explosive start for which the club's 27-year-old captain was hoping.

But should we be all that surprised? Not only has Weber lost his regular blue-line partner of years (more on that below), the Predators' firepower up front is far from menacing, especially with Patric Hornqvist out of the lineup with a knee injury. Nothing against David Legwand, Martin Erat, Mike Fisher, etc., but the majority of Nashville's top forwards would be second- or even third-liners with most other NHL squads. And that's part-reason why the Preds have collectively scored only 10 goals in their first six contests. There's a chicken/egg argument to be made -- once Weber hits his scoring stride, the whole team will benefit -- and that's likely to be true, to some degree. However, the elite D-man is still being asked to do a whole heckuva lot with an inferior supporting cast. No matter how you slice it, that hurts his fantasy value.

Top 75 Defensemen

Note: Victoria Matiash's top 75 defensemen are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Erik Karlsson, Ott (1)
2. Kris Letang, Pit (2)
3. Dustin Byfuglien, Win (3)
4. Zdeno Chara, Bos (4)
5. Brian Campbell, Fla (5)
6. Dan Boyle, SJ (6)
7. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (7)
8. Ryan Suter, Min (8)
9. Tobias Enstrom, Win (9)
10. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (11)
11. Andrei Markov, Mon (14)
12. Alexander Edler, Van (13)
13. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (19)
14. Shea Weber, Nsh (10)
15. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (12)
16. Mark Streit, NYI (16)
17. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (17)
18. Jack Johnson, Cls (15)
19. Drew Doughty, LA (18)
20. Niklas Kronwall, Det (21)
21. P.K. Subban, Mon (20)
22. Dennis Wideman, Cgy (22)
23. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (23)
24. Justin Schultz, Edm (28)
25. Keith Yandle, Pho (25)
26. Duncan Keith, Chi (24)
27. Matt Carle, TB (26)
28. Alex Goligoski, Dal (27)
29. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (31)
30. Mike Green, Was (32)
31. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (35)
32. James Wisniewski, Cls (29)
33. Mark Giordano, Cgy (30)
34. Joni Pitkanen, Car (34)
35. Marek Zidlicky, NJ (38)
36. Cam Fowler, Ana (36)
37. Ryan Whitney, Edm (37)
38. Tyler Myers, Buf (33)
39. Nick Leddy, Chi (44)
40. Travis Hamonic, NYI (39)
41. Sheldon Souray, Ana (43)
42. Brent Seabrook, Chi (40)
43. Raphael Diaz, Mon (54)
44. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (41)
45. Jason Garrison, Van (42)
46. Justin Faulk, Car (46)
47. Slava Voynov, LA (50)
48. Brendan Smith, Det (48)
49. Erik Johnson, Col (45)
50. Jared Spurgeon, Min (49)
51. Dougie Hamilton, Bos (53)
52. Ryan Ellis, Nsh (52)
53. Kevin Bieksa, Van (47)
54. Tom Gilbert, Min (55)
55. Victor Hedman, TB (56)
56. Paul Martin, Pit (62)
57. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (65)
58. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (59)
59. John-Michael Liles, Tor (61)
60. Dan Girardi, NYR (63)
61. Roman Josi, Nsh (57)
62. Sami Salo, TB (69)
63. Stephane Robidas, Dal (64)
64. Dan Hamhuis, Van (74)
65. John Carlson, Was (60)
66. Luca Sbisa, Ana (70)
67. Brent Burns, SJ (51)
68. Joe Corvo, Car (68)
69. Cody Franson, Tor (NR)
70. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (76)
71. Filip Kuba, Fla (73)
72. Jonas Brodin, Min (NR)
73. Jamie McBain, Car (NR)
74. Jake Gardiner, Tor (66)
75. Kurtis Foster, Phi (72)

Now, this isn't to suggest Weber is a fantasy dud -- not going anywhere near that silly notion -- only that a dip in personal production can be anticipated this compact season. At least to start. Once the veteran adapts to a new partner -- for his part, Roman Josi offers a ton of promise in the grand professional scheme -- the points will start to add up once again. Young Ryan Ellis is no slouch either. A key addition or two up front also wouldn't hurt. And Weber can always be counted on for heavy on-ice minutes and a high shooting tally. As long as you don't expect a 30-point campaign from the perennial All-Star, disappointment should be avoided this shortened season.

Meanwhile, the top-notch defenseman who used to provide the salsa to Weber's tortilla chips in Nashville is clearly becoming more comfortable with his new squad, the Minnesota Wild. After a listless start, Ryan Suter is able to boast of four points (including two power-play assists) in his past three contests, and he's averaged more than 28 minutes per game. When the top trio of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley gels more, Suter will only further benefit.

As for blue-line harmony, Suter's freshly-formed partnership with young Jonas Brodin (owned in less than 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues) holds plenty of promise. Those in the know insist the Swedish teen is going to be something special, for many years. If that chemistry crumbles, Tom Gilbert (owned in 45 percent of ESPN.com leagues) -- who's been enjoying a rambunctious start altogether -- is around to pair Suter at even-strength in addition to the power play. If anything, coach Mike Yeo seems reluctant to break up the Gilbert/Clayton Stoner duo. Jared Spurgeon (currently nursing a minor foot injury) is another young, dynamic option.

Altogether, Weber and Suter are obviously the same high-quality blue-liners -- fantasy and otherwise -- they were a few months ago. But following their respective offseason signings, the ensuing set of circumstances have changed considerably. And that's worth bearing in mind.

Rising and Falling

P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens (up one spot): Thank goodness that holdout drama is over and done. Armed with a fresh two-year, $5.75 million extension (a huge bargoon for the Montreal Canadiens), Subban can finally get back to the business of garnering attention for his on-ice antics. We can't wait. Even though the Canadiens should be reluctant to break up their top power-play pair of Andrei Markov and Raphael Diaz, Subban will have plenty of chances to create his own brand of fantasy mayhem. If anything, the 23-year-old's return might marginalize Tomas Kaberle's fantasy value once and for all. And the stingy contract will only serve to incite the young defenseman to prove he's worth more down the road. Much more.

Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres (down five spots): The number of shots (five though six games) is of greater concern than the deficiency in scoring (one goal). The 22-year-old has to be willing to pull the trigger more often for the Buffalo Sabres.

Nick Leddy, Chicago Blackhawks (up five spots): Leading his blue-line teammates with five points in six games, Leddy is picking up where he left off last season. Unless average time-on-ice is an overwhelming concern, Leddy should be added to your roster without second thought (if available, of course).

Cody Franson, Toronto Maple Leafs (re-emerges at No. 69): Declaring Tuesday's victory over the Buffalo Sabres the "best game" Franson has ever played as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, head coach Randy Carlyle appears to be a believer -- finally -- in the young, towering defenseman. How long the 25-year-old remains in Carlyle's good books remains to be seen, but we've always been high on Franson as a fantasy asset, dating back to his days with the Predators. Starting with that vicious shot of his, there's so much upside. And if he's traded -- a genuine possibility -- Franson's fantasy value should inflate further. Virtually un-owned in ESPN.com leagues, Franson could be well worth the gamble if your blue-line sports a significant hole.

Mike Green, Washington Capitals (up two points): Already living up to his personal pledge of performing better than he has the last couple of injury-riddled seasons, Green is off to the races with three points, 19 shots, and an average TOI of more than 27 minutes. Those numbers are all the more impressive considering how poorly the Capitals have performed as a whole. Once the club gets it's collective act together, Green -- and his fantasy owners -- should reap the rewards.

Key injury (and other) notes

For those keeping track, Lubomir Visnovsky is expected to join the New York Islanders on Feb. 11. However long after that it takes the 36-year-old to get up to speed and earn a spot in the Isles lineup (assuming he follows through with boarding the plane for Long Island) is another story. … With Andrej Meszaros out a month (shoulder injury) and Kurtis Foster made a healthy scratch of late, Kimmo Timonen is the only member of the Philadelphia Flyers' blue line deserving of serious fantasy consideration in most leagues. … Due back by the end of next week, Ian White (lacerated leg) of the Detroit Red Wings may be in position to battle Carlo Colaiacovo for power-play minutes. Colaiacovo could return from a shoulder injury within the next fortnight. … On the injured shelf with a wonky ankle, Matt Niskanen of the Pittsburgh Penguins is expected to sit out the next two to four weeks. While Simon Despres is pegged to fill in as top-pair partner to Kris Letang, veteran Paul Martin should see the bigger bump in fantasy value. … Jake Gardiner is in for a tune-up in the AHL following his disappointing (post-injury) start to the NHL season. Once back up to speed, Gardiner will be back with the Maple Leafs without much delay. … Brent Burns appears to be recovering from whatever has ailed him following offseason sports hernia surgery. The 27-year-old took part in San Jose Sharks' practice for the first time this week. However, there's still no ETA for Burns to return to competitive action.

Power play Performers

No need to fret about Cam Fowler's lack of production to start this campaign, a little more time to warm-up should do the trick. If you recall, Fowler got off to an extremely sluggish start last season (two points in all of October), before averaging nearly a point per game in November. The 21-year-old is logging more power-play minutes than any other Anaheim Ducks' defenseman, including Sheldon Souray, so it's only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, young Brendan Smith obviously needs more than six games to adjust to playing a prominent, full-time role in the NHL. And that's fair. No matter what transpires with White or Colaiacovo (see above: Key injury notes), the Red Wings will continue to utilize the blossoming offensive-defenseman in key situations. Despite his single assist to date, Smith still merits a spot on most fantasy rosters, particularly in keeper leagues.